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Part Two: The Invasion

(Posted to this site on 12/22/2006)

The Nazi Occupation Begins

By the late 1930s, it became apparent that something bad was about to happen in Poland. There was clearly a change in the relationships between the German residents of Poland (the Volksdeutsche) and the rest of the population. The organized preaching against Jews had taken hold in the non-Jewish society.

I don’t remember if we had access to newspapers, but the people in our community, in spite of their simple living conditions, somehow managed to stay informed and to exchange ideas.

Hardly anyone owned a radio. At that time, they were 100 times more rare than home computers are now. But one of our friends had one, and he would place it on the windowsill of his home and turn its speaker to face the street. We were close enough to the Prussian border that we received very clear radio signals, and what we heard, chilled us to the core.

I was maybe thirteen years old when I first became aware that life was changing. I was very mature, more so than thirteen-year-olds today. I had finished school and had been apprenticed to a furniture maker.

I was standing in the street with a small group of my neighbors, and we were listening to Hitler’s screaming tirades. No one made a sound. In stunned silence, we listened, shivering in the warm sunshine, as the voice of a madman rang out so clear it was as if he were in the street right behind us.

Hitler had cast his shadow over Ciechanow and we were powerless to dispel it.

Between 1938 and 1939 everything in Ciechanow came to a standstill.

Gradually, so very gradually, life as we knew it began to shut down. People were so uncertain and anxious about the future that nobody did any planning. Businesses began to close, and families drew close together. When the summer of 1938 ended, the schools never reopened.

By the beginning of 1939, the Volksdeutsche began organizing boycotts and marches against Jewish businesses. Their mission was to incite the Polish population against the Jews, and they were very successful in doing so. It was clear to us that the very powerful anti-Jewish movement taking place throughout Poland had the wholehearted support of most of the Polish population.

Soon, it seemed all the non-Jewish people had turned against us. They marched in front of our businesses. They spit on us in the streets. We became angry and fearful, but what could we do? There was no answer for it. We kept to ourselves and tried to ignore it.

Life grew increasingly difficult and depressing. as psychologically the Jewish community began to break down.

It was impossible to know then, however, that we were soon to experience the absolute evil of concentration camps, beatings, torture, mass executions and the systematic elimination of most of Europe’s Jews.

That year, many German Jewish families, thinking they were escaping the Nazis, crossed the East Prussian border into Poland and settled in and around the city of Ciechanow. My family and other Jewish residents helped them find places to live and provided food and other necessities of daily living. We certainly never realize that none of us was destined to remain in Ciechanow much longer.

During that period, most Jews had no idea that the Nazis would soon target them for extermination. Even those who could imagine it simply did not have the means or opportunity to escape from Europe.

Where were we to go? Ciechanow had been our haven for generations. This was home. It was where you were safe.

We feared the Russians nearly as much as the Germans, so fleeing to the East was out of the question. To our south were Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, all of which were in as much peril as we were in Poland. To our north were Prussia, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. There was nowhere to run nowhere to hide. The feeling was like being in a cage with no hope of ever being free. The feeling of hopelessness was almost overwhelming, especially for the adults and older teenagers in the Jewish community.

Of course, the non-Jewish people seemed to go about their daily lives as they always had done, but they were not without fear. The Poles themselves were increasingly concerned about their own welfare.

They knew their history of past invasions, of ancestors caught between warring nations that wanted to claim Poland’s ample harvests for food and her strong people for free labor. They had heard the rumors that Poland was next on Hitler’s list of lands to conquer.

And they had heard it would come the next fall, after the grain was harvested for winter.

They were right.

Early on the afternoon of September 1, 1939, the expected Nazi occupation of Poland began.

I was on the sidewalk outside our family’s apartment that afternoon when I first heard the roar of aircraft engines. I looked up into the blue autumn sky and saw the source – German planes flying low over the city.

I ducked back inside our apartment building as the bullets smashed into windows and shells exploded in the streets. The train station was destroyed. Homes, apartments, stores and businesses were reduced to ruin. Although the air attack was brief, the damage throughout the city was extensive.

It was clear that the German pilots were intentionally targeting the civilian population. We cowered in our apartment and were among the lucky ones for the moment. There were bullet holes all over our building, but our apartment itself received little damage, and no one was hurt.

No armies marched into town that day. No heavy artillery moved on its streets, but we knew the invasion we feared had begun.

The day after our city was bombed and strafed, my father gathered our family together, loaded a few belongings onto his horse and buggy and moved us to the town of Nowe Miasto (Neustadt), a short distance south of Ciechanow. It was farther from the Prussian border, and he thought it would be farther away from the immediate impact of the invasion. No one stopped us or bothered us while we were traveling, and we remained in Nowe Miasto with family friends for a few days until my father determined that it was safe enough to return to our home in Ciechanow.

My brother, Yussel, brought his bicycle to Nowe Miasto. He was riding it behind the buggy on the way back to Ciechanow when I spotted a German army patrol approaching on bicycles. I knew they would confiscate my brother’s bike if they saw him, so I quickly called him over and let the air out of his tires. I hoisted the bike onto my shoulder, hoping they would think it was useless.

When the German bike patrol came up to us they looked at the bicycle and us. Seeing the flat tires, they moved on and didn’t bother us. It was the first, but definitely not the last time that I outwitted the Nazis during the next six years.

Back in Ciechanow, German troops wearing Wehrmacht uniforms had already occupied the city. The Polish Army was no match for them, especially with the city’s native Germans collaborating with the invaders. We knew we had Nazi sympathizers living in our community, but we never knew their activities were so organized until we saw them in action after the invasion had taken place. The “Kristallnacht” violence had already occurred in Germany, and it had spilled over into a boycott of Jewish businesses in Poland. The Nazis met no effective opposition in Poland and accomplished their takeover quickly and efficiently.

German officers immediately confiscated the nicest homes and apartments throughout the city and eventually brought their families there to live with them.

When we returned to Ciechanow, my father learned that his poultry business and my Uncle Leibel’s grain business had been confiscated. This was told to him discretely, secretly. People were watching, and no assembly or discussion of any kind was allowed.

My family was never reimbursed in any way for the assets that the Nazi’s stole from them. I have no idea whether the Nazi’s continued to operate those businesses, as they did with the Polish farms they confiscated, or whether they simply used up all the assets and moved on. Of course, after the businesses were confiscated, we never went near them again. After many generations as self-sufficient, hard-workers the Altus family no longer had any means of income. Our psychological and physical existence became more difficult with each passing day.

We had no idea at the time that our living conditions would continue to get much worse.

Jewish-owned businesses were not the only ones affected by the Nazi takeover. Polish businesses, industries and farms also were confiscated. The Nazis forced the large estate farmers to remain on their farms and manage them for their new Nazi “owners.” The entire product of the Polish nation was now firmly under the Nazis’ direct control.

Daily life for the Jewish community of Ciechanow quickly deteriorated. The Volksdeutsche, who had been joyfully anticipating the arrival of the Nazis, put on their swastika armbands and told the Nazis where all the Jews were living. The Nazis immediately rounded-up groups of Jews and sent them out daily on forced-labor details. The Nazis ordered a curfew from sundown to sunup that restricted all occupants of the city, Jews and Poles alike, to their homes. The Nazis forbade the population to assemble and to worship. The synagogue, the church and schools were immediately closed.

Within a few months, the SS and Gestapo arrived in Ciechanow to supplement the regular German army troops. They made their presence known to us by quickly implementing more brutal control measures on the citizens, especially on the Jewish population. With the arrival of the SS and Gestapo, the Jews of Ciechanow became even more afraid of what the future held in store for them.

The atrocities started slowly, but after a few months of occupation, they became commonplace and expected. Signs were posted everywhere denouncing Jews. All Jews were required to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing. This identified us to the rest of the population. Jewish males were required to shave their beards and mustaches. The Nazis forbade Jews to use sidewalks and ordered us to walk in the gutters. If a Jew was seen walking on a sidewalk he would be kicked, beaten and spit upon not only by the Nazis, but also by his former neighbors and friends.

Young terrorists belonging to the Hitler Youth organization randomly stormed into Jewish homes at night and committed vicious acts of violence, destruction and terror. They beat, tortured and intimidated Jews throughout the city. The Nazis declared “open season” on the entire Jewish community, and there were no limits on the amount or type of physical and psychological terror inflicted on them by the Nazis and their sympathizers. Never was an SS, Gestapo, Nazi, or sympathizer held accountable for any atrocity done to a Jew. On the other hand, they were encouraged to kill, beat, torture, or abuse Jews simply because of their religion.

Although I never personally witnessed it, there were many stories of Hitler Youth forcing Jewish men and boys to watch the Nazis rape their wives, mothers and sisters. They even broke into homes and forced brothers and sisters to have sexual intercourse while they watched.

They never looked at us as fellow human beings, rather we were considered to be something less than human in their eyes. While I know that the above atrocities happened frequently, I refrain from talking about them when I visit schools to discuss the Holocaust with children. I thought during those long months of the Nazi occupation that I would never again see anything as cruel as what the Nazis did to us in Ciechanow simply because we were Jews.

But I was so very wrong.

Winter set in in October that year, bringing with it sub-zero temperatures and heavy, wet snows.

Early each morning the Nazis rounded up hundreds of young Jewish men and women from their homes and took them out to perform forced labor. Those who were unable to keep up with the fast pace set by the Nazis were severely beaten.

Some days we worked cleaning and repairing the homes and buildings that the Nazis confiscated and now occupied.

When the snows came, they forced us, in below-freezing temperatures, to clean it off the streets and sidewalks. Of course, it was all right for us to walk on the sidewalks as long as we were shoveling and sweeping the snow away, but not at any other time.

Normally we got no food during the workday. One day, my mother gave me a bread roll that I put in my pocket before going out to work. When I took the roll out of my pocket for lunch, I found it had frozen solid. My fingers became frostbitten, but from morning to night, day after endless day, we shoveled snow.

One day, my father came home injured and bleeding from a beating he had received at the hands of the Nazis. He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong because they never told us anything. They pushed, shoved and cursed us, calling us names and screaming in our ears. But they never explained anything. Never.

My mother tended his injuries in silence, and we never talked about what had happened. The walls had ears, and we could take no chances.

We had lost so much from our normal life. Not only were we short of food, but none of us had extra clothes. Each morning we put on the same damp clothing we had worn the day before. By the time we reached our work sites we were once again soaked from trudging through the wet snow. Every day we suffered from cold, hunger, thirst and fatigue.

But it wasn’t the hunger and other physical agonies that destroyed us. It was the psychological tortures that drove us to despair. Everything they did was designed to bring our morale down to zero.

They had a very clever way of breaking you down. If one person resisted, they would shoot many. You couldn’t even have a facial expression of dissatisfaction. You had to be stone-faced, stoic. You had to be made of steel.

They stole our homes, our businesses, our livelihoods. They took away all our means of self-care and preservation.

They strove to destroy our faith.

The Germans reached a new level of hatred when they turned our synagogue into a garage.

Before the occupation, no one ever drove to synagogue. We did not work on the Sabbath, so the men of the community would walk to worship. The temple itself sat back off the street, a long wide walkway running from its large entranceway to the road where we walked.

It was a place of great sacredness, which the Germans detested, and seeking to hurt us all at the deepest level they knew how, they turned our most holy gathering place into a home for their machines of war. They fouled the air with their diesel fumes and profanities. They spilled grease and oil upon the floors and looted our religious relics.

Then, in their most profane gesture, they rolled our treasured Torahs out on the ground and allowed their military trucks and other vehicles to run over them, desecrating the most sacred symbols of our religion.

One night, five Jewish elders embarked on a daring plan to protect the remaining Torahs from desecration until the war was over. They crept into the synagogue, removed several Torahs, and buried them in the Jewish cemetery. However, the Polish caretaker of the cemetery happened to see them and informed the Nazis.

Early in 1942, the Nazis rounded up the five men, elders Mlozker, Golozer, Rumianek, Savek and Tiblum. The Nazis then forced the entire Jewish population to come to the city square and watch in anguished silence as the Nazis hanged the heroic elders.

After the hanging, there was nothing to say. We never spoke of it, not even in the privacy of our own homes. There was no way to ease the horror for the children. We could only hold them close and try to quiet their frightened sobs.

For ourselves, we lived with the terror and pain in solitude and learned not to let it show, not to let it own us. It is like getting physically beaten. The first few blows really hurt. After that, you get numb.

During the high holidays, however, we risked death by assembling in the fourth floor attic of our apartment building for religious services.

Every crevice and crack was covered so no trace of candlelight would escape. Our prayers were sung in whispers, but our faith would not be denied.

Several people stood watch outside and in apartment windows. If German soldiers, Volksdeutsche or Hitler Youth approached our building, the lookouts signaled a warning. If we had been caught praying, the Nazis would have shot us on the spot.

Even though we had to cease observing the Jewish rituals and traditions, my father still managed not to eat anything that was not kosher because he deeply believed in the teachings of our faith.

One of the most important kosher rules required that animals be slaughtered according to a strict ritual. In our community there was a special building where the animals were killed by the “Shohet,” the person responsible for complying with the kosher rituals. According to rules of kosher, the knife used for slaughter had to be razor sharp without any nicks on the blade. Any blade with imperfections had to be thrown away. Literally, Shohet means “they feel no pain.”

There was nothing mysterious about the kosher requirements. They were designed to ensure that Jews consumed food that met the purity standards prescribed by our religion. Nevertheless, before the occupation the Polish government tried to outlaw kosher killing.

After the invasion, the Shohet was in constant danger because he refused to stop what he believed God had called him to do. When kosher food preparation became a forbidden act, a young Catholic woman named Yanka carried the ritual knives for the Shohet until it was safe for him to use them.

Yanka worked for many years for one of my uncles in his ladies’ designer clothing business. She spoke Yiddish fluently and was very friendly with our family despite the prejudices the rest of her community held against us. By doing this selfless act for the Shohet, and for all of us in the Jewish community, she risked her life. I never knew what happened to her.

As the Nazi occupation continued, atrocities worsened. My father was required to shave his mustache and wear the Star of David. He sometimes came home bruised and bleeding after having been kicked and beaten by non-Jews, some of whom he knew well and once counted among his friends. It was incomprehensible to me how a well-respected person such as my father could become a victim of such blind hatred, and yet he had. We all had.

One of the most agonizing ways this hatred was made manifest to us every day was in the disappearance of our friends and loved ones. We secretly prayed every morning when we left our homes and families that we would all be together again at the end of the day.

These were no idle prayers. Our numbers were dwindling and we were left to grieve and wonder without hope of ever knowing what had happened to those we loved.

One day, my brother Leibel went out on his daily work detail and didn’t come back. We never saw him again.

One of my female cousins disappeared the same way. Her father, my mother’s brother, survived the Holocaust and later died in New York.

We mourned them then.

We mourn them still.

A Jewish Hero

In the fall of 1941, the Nazis rounded up as many as 200 young, healthy Jewish women and sent them out to the large estate farms to harvest the potato crop. Those farms, which the Nazis previously confiscated, were now being managed by their former owners under direct Nazi control.

The Nazis demanded that the farms maximize their production in order to contribute to the war effort. Unlike the men and boys working on the roads, the young women stayed overnight on the farms. They were required to dig potatoes by hand from morning to night under the most brutal working conditions.

The farm managers provided little or no shelter, food or tools. In general, the Nazis treated those women worse than farm animals.

My uncle, Leibel Altus, was a wonderful man who demonstrated love and kindness towards his family, and care and concern for those less fortunate than himself.

His family always came first, his business came second, and his deep love of horses came third. He raised and rode show horses, which he kept on the outskirts of Ciechanow.

Over the years, Uncle Leibel had built up a very good working relationship with those Poles who were now being forced to manage the farms they had previously owned. He had bought their grain crops for many years, and they knew that he was an honest, reliable businessman.

Uncle Leibel decided it might be worthwhile to try to talk them into improving conditions for the young women forced to work there.

He was not expecting to accomplish much because he knew the Nazis would not stand for it, but he thought it would be worth a try.

Uncle Leibel still had one of the horses he had owned before the occupation. One day, he saddled up and rode into the countryside to see what he could do. He rode from farm to farm asking the managers to do anything they could to give the young women more food, shelter and tools. Any improvement would be welcome, he surmised.

He knew he was taking a serious risk, but he refused to just sit back and allow those young women to continue to be treated so poorly.

It just wasn’t in his character to do such a thing if there were any hope at all that his influence could make some difference.

Uncle Leibel’s own four children, two girls and two boys, were too young to be taken to the work details, but he wanted none of those young people to suffer if he could affect even the smallest change.

Apparently someone, maybe even one of his former friends, tipped off the Nazis about his so-called subversive activities.

One day, after again riding out to the farms, he failed to return home. After losing my brother Leibel and a cousin, our family feared the worst. Several days later we heard the news.

The local police who patrolled the roads had seized him, probably on some Nazi’s order.

They then took him into the woods and shot him to death.